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James McNeill Whistler

American-born, British-based artist
James McNeill Whistler, Self-portrait (painted 1872), It takes a long time for a man to look like his portrait.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler (10 July 183417 July 1903) was an American-born, British-based painter and etcher. Finding a parallel between painting and music, Whistler entitled many of his paintings 'arrangements', 'harmonies', and 'nocturnes'.



1870 - 1903Edit

  • John Ruskin: 'The labour of two days is that for which you ask two hundred guineas?'
    Whistler: 'No. I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime.'
    • Whistler v. Ruskin (1878)
  • Why should not I call my works 'symphonies', 'arrangements', 'harmonies', and 'nocturnes'?.. .The vast majority of English folk cannot and will not consider a picture as a picture, apart from any story which it may be supposed to tell. My picture of 'Harmony in Grey and Gold' is an illustration of my meaning – as snow scene with a single black figure and lighted tavern. I care nothing for the past, present, or future of the black figure, placed there because the black was wanted at that spot. All that I know is that my combination of grey and gold is the basis of the picture, Now this is precisely what my friends cannot grasp.
    • In a letter to 'The World', London 22 Mai, 1878; as quoted in Letters of the great artists – from Blake to Pollock, Richard Friedenthal, Thames and Hudson, London, 1963, p. 186
  • If the man who paints only the tree, or flower, or other surface he sees before him were an artist, the king of artists would be the photographer. It is for the artist to do something beyond this: in portrait painting to put on canvas something more than the face the model wears for that one day: to paint the man, in short, as well as his features; in arrangement of colours to treat a flower as his key, not as his model. This is now understood indifferently well – at least by dressmakers. In every costume you see attention is paid to the key-note of colour which runs through the composition, as the chant of the Anabaptists through the 'Prophète', or the Hugenots' hymn in the opera of that name.
    • In a letter to 'The World', London 22 Mai, 1878; as quoted in Letters of the great artists – from Blake to Pollock, Richard Friedenthal, Thames and Hudson, London, 1963, p. 186
  • Shall the painter then.. ..decide upon painting? Shall he be the critic and sole authority? Aggressive as is this supposition, I fear that, in the length of time, his assertion alone has established what even the gentleman of the quill accept as the canons of art, and recognize as the masterpieces of work. Seurat's painting of the Grande Jatte proved extremely influential.
    • Whistler, (1892) In: Gentle Art of making Enemies, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1922, p. 30
  • May I therefore acknowledge the tender glow of health induced by reading, as I sat here in the morning sun, the flattering attention paid me by your gentleman of ready wreath and quick biography!
    • After a Dutch newspaper prematurely! reported his death in 1902

lecture 'Ten O'Clock' (1885)Edit

  • Art is a goddess of dainty thought, reticent of habit, abjuring all obtrusiveness, purposing in no way to better others. She is, withal selfishly occupied with her own perfection only — having no desire to teach.
  • Art is upon the Town!
  • Listen! There was never an artistic period. There was never an art-loving nation.
  • Nature is usually wrong.
  • [another part / version of Whistler's lecture:]
    Nature contains the elements, in colour and form, of all pictures, as the keyboard contains the notes of all music. But the artist is born to pick, and choose, and group with science, these elements, that the result may be beautiful—as the musician gathers his notes, and forms his chords, until he bring forth from chaos glorious harmony. To say to the painter, that Nature is to be taken as she is, is to say to the player, that he may sit on the piano. That Nature is always right, is an assertion, artistically, as untrue, as it is one whose truth is universally taken for granted. Nature is very rarely right, to such an extent even, that it might almost be said that Nature is usually wrong: that is to say, the condition of things that shall bring about the perfection of harmony worthy a picture is rare, and not common at all.

'The Gentle Art of Making Enemies' (1890)Edit

The Gentle Art of Making Enemies : As Pleasingly Exemplified In Many Instances, Wherein The Serious Ones Of This Earth, Carefully Exasperated, Have Been Prettily Spurred On To Unseemliness And Indiscretion, While Overcome By An Undue Sense Of Right
  • The rare few, who, early in life, have rid themselves of the friendship of the many.
    • Dedication
  • To say of a picture, as is often said in its praise, that it shows great and earnest labor, is to say that it is incomplete and unfit for view.
    • Propositions, 2
  • Industry in art is a necessity - not a virtue - and any evidence of the same, in the production, is a blemish, not a quality; a proof, not of achievement, but of absolutely insufficient work, for work alone will efface the footsteps of work.
    • Propositions, 2
  • The masterpiece should appear as the flower to the painter—perfect in its bud as in its bloom - with no reason to explain it's presence - no mission to fulfill - a joy to the artist, a delusion to the philanthropist - a puzzle to the botanist - an accident of sentiment and alliteration to the literary man.
    • Propositions, 2
  • As music is the poetry of sound, so is painting the poetry of sight, and the subject-matter has nothing to do with harmony of sound or of colour. The great musicians knew this. w:Beethoven and the rest wrote music — simply music; symphony in this key, concerto or sonata in that.. .Art should be independent of all claptrap — should stand alone, and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism, and the like. All these have no kind of concern with it; and that is why I insist on calling my works 'arrangements' and 'harmonies.'
    • Propositions, 2
    • (also in a letter to 'The World', London 22 Mai, 1878; as quoted in Letters of the great artists – from Blake to Pollock, Richard Friedenthal, Thames and Hudson, London, 1963, p. 186)
  • It is for the artist.. portrait painting to put on canvas something more than the face the model wears for that one day; to paint the man, in short, as well as his features.
    • Propositions, 2
  • One cannot continually disappoint a Continent.
    • Propositions, 2
  • I am not arguing with you — I am telling you.
    • Propositions, 2

posthumous publishedEdit

  • Oscar Wilde: 'I wish I had said that'
    Whistler: 'You will, Oscar, you will.'
    • L.C. Ingleby, Oscar Wilde (1907). This is a paraphrased version of the quotation that has come to be accepted. For a chronology of sources see Quote Investigator.
  • You shouldn't say it is not good. You should say you do not like it; and then, you know, you're perfectly safe.
  • 'I know of only two painters in the world,' said a newly introduced feminine enthusiast to Whistler, 'yourself and Velasquez.' 'Why,' answered Whistler in dulcet tones, 'why drag in Velasquez?'
    • D.C. Seitz, Whistler Stories (1913)
  • Yes, madam, Nature is creeping up. [in response to a lady who said that a landscape reminded her of his work]
    • D.C. Seitz, Whistler Stories (1913)
  • Two and two continue to make four, in spite of the whine of the amateur for three, or the cry of the critic for five.
    • Whistler v. Ruskin
  • I say I can't thank you too much for the name 'Nocturne' as a title for my moonlights! You have no idea what an irritation it proves to the critics and consequent pleasure to me — besides it is really so charming and does so poetically say all that I want to say and no more than I wish.
    • Anderson and Koval, p. 186; as quoted on the English Wikipedia
  • A group from Glasgow sought in 1891 to purchase his portrait of w:Thomas Carlyle was shocked that Whistler's price was 1000 guineas. A spokesman countered that the portrait was not even life size. Whistler replied, 'But, you know, few men are life size.'
    • Tom Prideaux and Time-Life Books, The World of Whistler (1970)

Quotes about James McNeill WhistlerEdit

  • For Mr Whistler's own sake, no less than for the protection of the purchaser, Sir Coutts Lindsay ought not to have admitted works into the gallery in which the ill-educated conceit of the artist so nearly approached the aspect of willful imposture. I have seen, and heard, much of cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face. [reacting on Whistler's painting: 'w:Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket' (c. 1875) - an almost abstract city-scene, exposed in an exhibition at London's Grosvenor Gallery in 1877]
  • not merely for its clever satire and amusing jests.. ..but for the pure and perfect beauty of many of its passages.. ..for that he is indeed one of the very greatest masters of painting, in my opinion. And I may add that in this opinion Mr. Whistler himself entirely concurs.
    • w:Oscar Wilde, on reading Whistler's first book, Ten O'clock Lecture in 1885; as quoted in James McNeill Whistler, Lisa N. Peters, Smithmark, New York, 1996, pg. 57; as quoted on Wikipedia
  • He did better than attract a few followers and imitators; he influenced the whole world of art. Consciously, or unconsciously, his presence is felt in countless studios; his genius permeates modern artistic thought.
    • w:Charles Caffin (1906), as quoted in James McNeill Whistler, Lisa N. Peters, Smithmark, New York, 1996, pg. 57; as quoted on Wikipedia.
  • In our beginnings, Fantin, Whistler and I were all on the same road, the road from Holland [Dutch 17th century painters]
    • Edgar Degas - recalled by Paul Poujaud (in his letter to Marcel Guérin, 11 July 1936); as quoted by Colin B. Bailey, in The Annenberg Collection: Masterpieces of Impressionism and Post-impressionism, publish. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2009, p. 54
    • Degas is recalling his early works of the 1860's
  • His landscapes of those years [mid-1860s] reveal that he had rejected his earlier commitment to transcribing nature in the manner of Courbet, and was responding instead to formalist imperatives, including flat, decorative surfaces, subtle tonal harmonies, and allusive, rather than literal, subjects. Taking a cue from a critic who had referred to his early portrait of his mistress, 'The White Girl' (1862; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), as a 'symphony in white,' Whistler began to envision and entitle his works with the abstract language of music, calling them symphonies, compositions, harmonies, nocturnes, arrangements, and so forth.
    • H. Barbara Weinberg, in: James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903), [1] 'Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History'. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (April 2010)

External linksEdit